“Past thought cannot solve modern problems”

Cultural changes, such as the one that gave birth to the modern age, have a definitive and irreversible impact that transforms the very essence of reality. Not merely our thinking about the real changes: reality itself changes as we think about it differently. History carries an ontic significance that excludes any reversal of the present […]

We have witnessed the birth of neo-Aristotelians, neo-Platonists (in both senses of the term), neo-Thomists, and, most recently, neo-nominalists. Those who, by updating past thoughts, hoped to neutralize such baneful features of modern thought as the oppositions between subject and object or the loss of a transcendent component underestimated the radical nature of the modern revolution. Its problems cannot be treated as errors to be corrected by a simple return to an earlier truth. That truth is no longer available; it has vanished forever … [P]ast thought cannot solve modern problems. Though eternal in its own way, it does not address conditions that are exclusively our own – such as the fragmentation of our world picture. It may assist us in sorting out modern issues, but it does not provide ready answers. Modern culture has contributed a totally new way of confronting the real.

A genuinely new synthesis, if ever to come, will have to rest on newly established principles […] Our present task may well be the humble one of exploring how the fragments we are left with serve as building blocks for a future synthesis.”

Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale, 1993), 6-7.

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6 thoughts on ““Past thought cannot solve modern problems”

  1. Thanks for this intriguing quote, Kent.

    If I may weigh in with my two cents, not having read this book or Dupre generally, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with him. On the one hand it is sufficiently clear that modernity brings with it a kind of ontological ‘layering over’ of previously held sources of belief. Heidegger’s discussion of ‘enframing’ in relation to technology seems instructive here, and I’m sure this is what Dupre is more or less thinking about. This point ought to be brought forward any time the conventional conservative commentator springs to a ‘slippery slope’ argument against perceived cultural trajectories. The reality is that ‘slope’ to which s/he refers is usually one slipped off (or bulldozed over) a long time ago. Modernity producing and sustaining its own moral ontology keeps this criticism from appearing at all appealing, and usually renders it woefully antiquated.

    That much said, I think Dupre (if I’m reading him right – it’s hard to tell from the passage whether he’s giving an historical judgement here or proffering his own opinion) is just dead wrong about the relevance of the past. It’s one thing to say that a ‘layering’ has occurred which obscures or renders impotent older moral ontologies (e.g. natural law), but it is quite another to suggest this layering is insuperable or unquestionable. The cultural purchase of ‘antiquated’ moral ontology may very well be all but null and void in the political realities of today, but this does not mean the ontology which replaced it does not owe a severe debt to its history. I think you’ll find Gillepsie speaking about this more or less and insisting upon the opposite conclusion. To say modernity owes a debt is of course to say it is living on borrowed time. Its cherished political institutions lack all manner of intelligible and conceptual integrity. In what sense does this make the past which bore them meaningless for the present? That would seem to make it desperately necessary, in need of recovery.

    No one says the past proffers ‘ready answers’ to the problems of modernity. But the past can articulate for us why we’re asking the questions we’re asking, and in so doing show us, on its own terms, what might be lacking or unintelligible in ours. Or am I way off? Would like to hear your thoughts on Dupre, inter alia.

    • Regarding the former, you’re on the mark. Dupre has some lengthy discussion of Heidigger and comes around to say, “Only recently have philosophers begun to adopt a more dynamic ontology in which becoming presents the real face of being (8)”

      On the later, I posted a couple more sentences from the original section to make Dupre’s point more plain (hopefully). Dupre’s “humble” exploration for “building blocks” doesn’t sound far off from what you are suggesting. I tend to think Dupre has it right on this point, and that efforts to learn from the past (for whatever purpose of “fixing” the present) should heed his warning.

  2. Thanks for the quote extension Kent. I think this clarifies some things for me. I’ll just have to read the book to form any meaningful follow up. Thanks.

  3. I would love to sometime Kent. Why don’t you email me when you get the chance (you should have access to my address via my subscription to these comments).

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